Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet, for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put into practice.
Therefore the Master remains serene
in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people’s greatest help.
True words seem paradoxical.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 78, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
True words seem paradoxical. These are the words that Lao Tzu chooses to close today’s chapter. And they are fitting words indeed. Which is why I thought I would start with them. Because today’s chapter offers truth. But it does seem paradoxical.
We were talking a couple of days ago about the soft and yielding representing life, and the hard and inflexible representing death. As is always the case, Lao Tzu keeps returning to the same ideas again and again. He wants to make sure we get it; and through endless repetition, I think we can.
Today, he returns once again to what just might be his favorite metaphor, water. Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Lao Tzu wants us to be disciples of life. To be soft and yielding like water. And why? Because, for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.
This is a great paradox. But only because it is true. The soft does indeed overcome the hard. The gentle overcomes the rigid. This is the nature of water. Water is soft and gentle in the world. But it overcomes all resistance. We only have to observe water in its natural environment to see this play out. Water always seeks out the lowest places. It is a very humble teacher.
But just notice the course it takes. There are always a few obstacles along its way. Most of the time, water simply goes around them. But sometimes an obstacle rises up, hard and inflexible; oh, now, this time we will see water held back. Water seems to be defeated. But only for a time. Water is patient. It can outlast the hard and inflexible. And we all know exactly what will eventually happen. Water will win in the end.
Okay, this is all well and good. But what does water have to do with anything? What Lao Tzu is getting at, is the need for us to learn the lessons that nature is teaching us. While everyone knows the properties of water, few can put the lessons we should be learning from it, into practice.
I want to be of help to people. And I know that deep down, that is true of just about all of you. We want to help. Often, we don’t know how. We try. We fail. Sometimes we only make matters worse. But that doesn’t change the fact that we want to be able to help. And so the question is, how can we really be the greatest help?
This is where the Master comes in. You can always count on Lao Tzu to bring in the Master to show us how it is done. But don’t forget the lessons of the water. You can be sure the Master hasn’t.
A lot of the time, when we are most feeling the need to be of help, it is because people are in the midst of sorrow. We want to comfort them. To help them. And Lao Tzu warns us, that it is at just this time, when evil can enter hearts. We must not succumb to the sorrow. We must, like the Master, remain serene.
And once again, Lao Tzu’s words seem paradoxical. You want to be the people’s greatest help? Give up trying to help them.
Giving up on trying to help seems about as cold and callous as can be. Yes, it may seem that way. That is the paradox. But you haven’t forgotten about water, have you? Water is paradoxical. Water doesn’t let obstacles get in the way of accomplishing its purpose. It remains serene too. It can wait. For just the right moment. And then it will act. It doesn’t try to accomplish anything. It just does what it does. It just is what it is.
The Master is like that. And, we can be like that, too.